After decades of working in the entertainment industry, Boston University commencement speaker Bonnie Hammer invited the class of 2017 to frame their future as a good story that has yet to be written.
This includes, according to the NBC executive, a great supporting cast, a transformation in the main character, and an interesting time and place as the setting.
“You may not know it now, if you studied communications or engineering, law or medicine, business or classics: you’re a storyteller, too,” Hammer told the more than 6,500 graduates in this year’s class. “When you leave here today, you’ll begin writing the most powerful, most meaningful, story of your life. It’s the story of you.”
More than 20,000 poured into Nickerson Field for BU’s 144th commencement, drawn by great weather, the large class, and David Ortiz, who received an honorary degree just up the street from a ballpark where the former slugger helped the Red Sox win championships. In a ceremony that struck a political tone, multiple speakers offered rebukes of elements of the Trump administration, but the overarching message was one of celebration.
Along Commonwealth Avenue, people donned #34 jerseys — Ortiz’s number— among the sea of red graduation gowns. Big Papi received ovations every time he was shown on the screens, clad in a red-and-black robe.
When it came time to receive his Doctor of Humane Letters, Big Papi’s career statistics were highlighted by BU president Dr. Robert A. Brown. The Dominican-American was lauded for his commitment to leadership, his charitable foundation, and his memorable speech in the wake of the Marathon Bombing.
And despite chants of “speech!” after being hooded, Ortiz only offered a “thank you very much” before returning to his seat.
She said Ortiz would be a tough act to follow, but Hammer delivered a wide-ranging address that drew its own standing ovation. As the chairman of NBCUniversal Cable and Entertainment, Hammer is responsible for television series such as “Top Chef” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Hammer prompted some lighter moments, such as when she remarked to the class, “You seem rested relaxed, happy, actually sober, could that be? I don’t think I was back (when I graduated.)” She also emphasized to graduates the importance “challenging mentors” who will push and fortify them in their professional journeys.
When Hammer was at BU, she recalled, a photography professor made an example of her. She was not let back into class until she would put more effort into taking better shots.
“This is the person you think is your antagonist, who ends up being your greatest ally,” Hammer said. “The person who pushes, criticizes and challenges you, to meet a standard of excellence you might not otherwise achieve.”
Several speakers touched on the current political climate, including Wayne Positan, president of the BU Alumni Council, who said “we all know what happens to walls” when talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Hammer ticked off supporting characters, she listed Batman and Robin, Kirk and Spock, and Serena and Venus Williams — as well as “Trump and Putin,” in a nod to the president’s relatively cozy relationship with Russia.
Student speaker Maxwell Robidoux encouraged his fellow graduates to fight alternative facts and fake news, and focus on “rejecting the concept of a post-truth world.”
For the class of 2017, leaving campus is bittersweet, but the optimism on the field was palpable, especially as the degrees were awarded by college, and caps were thrown skyward.
“I grew here, I really learned how to communicate with others and get a better perspective, to be more open,” said Felizzia Garza, a communications major with a minor in business who plans to return to her native Mexico.
“This is so surreal, it hasn’t really hit me yet” says Maddy Hamilton, a health services graduate who said she plans to return to her home in New Jersey. “I love what Bonnie said about the value of a supporting cast though. I think that’s invaluable.”
Jon Mael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.